Although he’s already directed two feature-lengthy films – Lady of the Lake (1998) and Slasher(2001) – and made an attention-getting (and very funny) satirical short called PMS Survival Tips, Maurice Devereaux’s latest film, End of the Line (2006), was an official entry at theToronto International Film Festival. In the intervening years, the writer/director/producer/editor chose to weigh his distribution options carefully, ultimately selecting Anchor Bay/Critical Mass as the film’s distributor.
Whereas most filmmakers would think moving fast was the best course of action to parlay their latest film into a more active career, Devereaux knew all the attention that surrounds filmmakers before, during, and immediately after a festival debut has to be examined as carefully as possible to ensure the years spent planning, filming, and completing one’s movie aren’t wasted on what can plainly be branded a bad deal.
It’s a precarious situation, because you’ve just shown industry reps a commercial product, and you know there’s a window of opportunity wherein you must decide the best move for the film and your career. How do you know what’s the best deal? How can you be sure distribution means your film will be accessible to target and broad audiences? And more important, how can ensure the deal will set the stage for the next film?
In our candid conversation, Devereaux explains some of the tough decisions indie filmmakers have to make, as well as the importance of maintaining supportive professional associations and friendships with fellow filmmakers. And for fellow Torontonians fascinated by the city’s subway system, Devereaux also explains what it was like to film inside Lower Bay, the so-called ghost station that’s been sealed up from the general public for more that 40 years, but is available to filmmakers when they need a functional subway platform for their movie. (For further info on Lower Bay, check out the Editor’s Blog for links to informative websites.)
Mark R. Hasan: How did you get involved in the film industry?
Maurice Devereaux: I think as a kid, even when I was ten years old, just watching horror movies, reading comic books, and starting to read Starlog and Fangoria, I just knew I wanted to do movies, but not coming from a movies family at all, I was going into it rather blindly. It’s basically a love of movies that made me want to do tell stories.
MRH: Did you begin by working your way up from the ground up, such as doing editing or cinematography work?
MD: No, I went to the principle that it’s better to be captain of your own little ship than to be a deckhand on a big ship, so I actually almost never worked on any other movies. In reading about how other different directors made it, most of them just directed movies, so I followed more the paths of the Sam Raimis and the Peter Jacksons, even Spielberg or Rodriguez. All these people just started to do their own movies, and just went bigger and bigger, and I sort of went that route instead of doing odd jobs on other films.
MRH: I guess one advantage in taking that path in Canada is that we have great crews, good special effects houses, post-production houses and labs that make it easy to draw from a solid talent pool when you have a solid project.
MD: I guess, although a lot of people would say that it’s a double edged sword, because, let’s say if you’re in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal: yes, you’ll have a pool of more actors and technician, etc., but at the same time, people are more spoiled by Hollywood that has come and paid them a lot of money.
Also, let’s say you’re in a remote, small town, and you want to do a movie. If you go up to a local farmer and say, ‘We’re doing a film, we’d like to use your barn,’ he’ll go ‘Sure! Go right ahead. If you need anything, I’ll be back in a few hours,’ whereas in Montreal, ask anyone, they’ll go ‘That’ll be a thousand dollars,’ so there is that disadvantage of being in a movie city, and I’ve been burned many times. With a few of my filmmaker friends, we get so discouraged and say ‘Jeeze, let’s move and go someplace else,’ because it becomes increasingly difficult to do things in a movie city.
MRH: In Canada, there’s only so much independent financing one can draw from to get a project off the ground, and although there are the government agencies where you can get some assistance, I wonder if there’s a perceptible competition among indie filmmakers striving to benefit from the limited financial resources.
MD: Competition is maybe not the right word. I guess those that are applying, let’s say forSODEC or Telefilm support are in competition with the other people who are applying, but since it’s a board of people who are adjudicating, it’s not like a direct competition. I don’t think there’s that much animosity between the different filmmakers. It’s almost like a lottery where it’s the luck of the draw.
On the private side of financing, there’s no competition at all because basically other filmmakers are actually your friends, and I think among all the filmmakers that I know, we have much more of a support group than any competitiveness between each other.
But just to make something clear, I didn’t pitch End of the Line to anyone; I just made it myself. I’ve met some other Canadian filmmakers that had gone door-to-door with small amounts from local investors and farmers, sort of what like Sam Raimi did, where he had gotten something like thirty dentists and doctors to put up $10,000 each.
Some people might be good at that, but that’s not something I thought of looking into, probably because I wouldn’t have been able to do it out of respect, because the film industry is so risky; I could not honestly say to someone ‘Hey, if you invent $10,000 in my film, you’ll make a lot of money.’ I’m not naïve to that side. I’d feel terrible to ask money from people and knowing there’s a risk that they wouldn’t see it back. If I go down the drain, it’s my own fault, and there’s no one to pay for it but me.
MRH: I noticed in the interviews on the DVD that the cast and crew were very supportive and respectful because you were juggling a lot of responsibilities during production. In order for you to accomplish that balancing act, did you have, just for yourself, a written plan, in terms of how you were going to organize the production, the marketing plan, and any kind of distribution models?
MD: The answer is no. No plan at all. It was totally like extreme sport, like bungy jumping; not knowing anything of how and what will happen. It was not a very good business decision; it was more something from the heart. I just needed to make a movie and went ahead, but I was flying completely blind.
MRH: It’s quite a rush, and it’s also quite terrifying to make a full-length feature film.
MD: For sure. You read or hear on the DVD commentaries how stressed usually every filmmaker is, but most of these filmmakers, except on rare occasions, don’t have the added stress that it’s their own money that’s going out the window, so it’s something that’s added to the mix. Even without that, you know it’s a very stressful job, so adding that makes it complete and utter dynamite, but you do what you can.
MRH: Did you plan on making End of the Line a union production, or was that an option that you hoped would attract more people with standard pay scales?
MD: The only reason, in my case, that I went union with the actors was to be able to get better actors, because that was one of the bigger problems of my previous films; the talent pool of non-union is so limited, because usually if they’re any good, they become union, so having faced that challenge before and knowing it’s almost an impossible thing to achieve, I decided to go union to help the film.
MRH: For the subway sequences, you mentioned that it ended up being cheaper to shoot in Toronto than to get the cooperation of the Montreal subway system, which is kind of surprising.
MD: It’s a perfect example of what I was saying before of how these cities become so greedy and blind because they’ve been spoiled by Hollywood, and if a smaller production comes along, they won’t give them the time of day.
When I was a teenager, I went and shot without permission in the Montreal Metro, and no one saw us; we didn’t hurt anyone, we didn’t stop anything, and only when were leaving someone came and said ‘What are you doing?’ but then said ‘Okay, Good bye’ and let us leave after we explained we were students making a film.
But times have changed. Now, just being there in a corner with a camera, they’ll say ‘Well, it’s $5,000 an hour, and we need three paid guardians here.’ That’s all Hollywood’s fault, when they come with millions of dollars, and they have no time to deal with anything to negotiate and they just go ‘whatever’ and throw money at the problem – but it makes it a lot harder afterwards for the small guy.
MRH: Among the locations in your film, you shot in what’s known as the Lower Bay subway station, the ‘ghost station,’ as it’s called. It’s only in the last year or year and a half that the public has had two or three opportunities to go in there and visit it, but it’s been used many, many times by film studios.
I’d like to know what it was like shooting in the ghost station? And did you have a great deal of use of it?
MD: Once again, for budgetary reasons, I found that Toronto is really cooperative (unlike Montreal); you’re still charged an amount which is completely okay in terms of for what it’s worth, but it’s still very expensive for someone paying out of their pocket.
Instead of being at night, I had to shoot during the day, and what happens is that trains are still running, so every few minutes there would be the trains that would ruin any dialogue takes, so we had to time our shots where the actors would be speaking in between trains.
Other people might say, ‘Well why didn’t you just loop the dialogue later on?’ For low budget films, you have to bring back the actors, etc., and these are expenses which are negligible in big films, but every dollar counts on a small film.
Secondly, we didn’t have access to any subway tunnels, just the platform, because everything else would be extra. Let’s say we wanted a train to come down. Well, you have to rent the actual train and the driver and this and that, and that would’ve been added to the expenses, so we just took the minimum, which was the access to the platform, and that’s it; everything else is complete movie fakery.
MRH: One aspect that really impressed me about the film is that in many cases you can’t really tell what is a digital insertion because it’s done very cleanly.
There’s one shot where you open on the Lower Bay platform and there’s a digital clock in the top corner, and the camera moves downward to the characters. The clock looks completely natural in the shot, and I though you designed a prop, stuck it to one of the columns, and moved the camera down, but it’s all digital, and it was quite flawless.
There are a lot of little moments like that in the film, and I think that it also helps the film’s look which is a great fusion of the production designer’s concept of a late-seventies look with parts of the subways and tunnels and platforms showing their age.
MD: Sometimes you have a few lucky accidents. The Montreal train that I had access to is such an old-looking train, and the grimy old tunnels made it all fit together, so people from Toronto will recognize the Lower Bay Station, but for most people watching the movie, they have no idea where this is. If they’ve never been to Montreal, they’ll just think ‘Oh, that’s the Montreal subway system.’ They have no idea where this is, so it creates this mystery subway system which doesn’t exist but seems that it could exist. I was kind of lucky on that because it was quite an ambitious thing to try.
MRH: And for the Montreal tunnel, I think you mentioned that it’s called the Wellington Tunnel?
MRH: And that was in use at one point in time, or it was a part of a transportation network tat was abandoned?
MD: Actually, it’s not a subway tunnel, it was an old express lane for downtown car traffic that was closed off, and now it’s just an empty tunnel that’s used a lot for movies.
I had went on the set of another filmmaker friend (Karim Hussain) who was shooting a short there, and as I was walking around, I sort of told myself, ‘Hey, this could double for a subway tunnel,’ and that just stuck, and 2-3 years later, when I’d written End of the Line and I was looking for locations, I remembered the Wellington Tunnel.
I went back there and said, ‘Yeah, if we add lights and a few things here and there and digital effects, this could work,’ and I think for most people, I don’t think anyone who has seen the movie was ever even remotely suspicious that it wasn’t a subway. It never comes into the equation… I’m very proud of that because that was not something that was necessarily easy to do.
MRH: I think it works very well, because the basic form and structure of the tunnel itself is very similar to the ones in the Toronto system, so you can actually cut back and forth.
After End of the Line played at the Toronto International Film Festival, was there a great deal of interest from distributors, and was it comforting to know that there were interested parties willing to pick up the film for theatrical and/or home video distribution?
MD: If you notice, we’re actually two years from the time the film premiered in Toronto to its current premiere on DVD, so in answer to your question, it’s been a very, very rough ride.
At Toronto, there was a lot of interest from a lot of different companies, but here’s the problem (and this is a very huge subject, especially between indie filmmakers): a lot of people will want your movie, but with the kind of deals they’re offering you, you won’t ever see a dime back.
That is the biggest hurdle: it’s not actually making the film, but being able to afterwards get a bit of money back That’s why it’s been taking so long for the film to be released. It’s not because there was any lack of interest; I could have sold the film even before it played at Toronto, and just the fact that it entered Toronto, I had fifty people calling me and lining up wanting to acquire the film, but from previous experiences, I knew to not fall prey to a lot of smoke blowing.
The last two years have been spent basically learning the ropes on how to sell the film and make a few dollars by selling it to specific countries. It’s very far from filmmaking, but unfortunately when you end up being the producer of the film, it’s something you have to do.
To get back to a point I was mentioning where there’s a lot of camaraderie between filmmakers, I’ve been in contact with at least 15-20 different indie filmmakers from different countries, and we’ve just been exchanging stories and tips, like ‘bad eggs’ and deals not to do because we’ve all been in the same boat. For me, whenever I meet another indie filmmaker, it’s more like a brother in arms – it’s us against them – them being the distributors and the sales agents, etc.
A lot of first-time filmmakers will get caught because they think, ‘Company X wants the movie, we’ve hit the big time!’ but then a year later they realize even though X has released their film everywhere, they haven’t made a penny because X boosted all the expenses and this and that. With the kind of deal they have, they had no control over a lot of these things and basically ended up with no money.
It’s a true situation, because a lot of young filmmakers get blinded by big studio names, and they think ‘Oh, wow, this is my Blair Witch moment,’ but what they don’t realize is that the Blair Witches are the very specific lottery winners where there’s money on the table for the filmmakers, and nowadays that’s a very rare occurrence. It still happens once or twice or three times a year for certain indie films, but usually now what happens is that there’s no up-front money, and it’s a never-ending battle to actually get some money back.
For people who are in the business for a long time and already have sales and distribution contacts, most of their films are already pre-sold. I don’t know if you’ve heard of all these Sci-Fi Channel horror films that get made. A lot of them are shot in Montreal, and I know a lot of people who worked on them. The way they’re set up is that Sci-Fi Channel pays a certain amount, and then tax credits pay another amount, and that’s it; that’s what the movie is made with. It would not be made if there was any risk at all; no one put a mortgage on their house for these movies, and the filmmaker in most of these cases is just a hired hand; it’s not his film, and the inherent way they’re made is not conducive to a lot of quality.
MRH: Blair Witch Project (1999) and Man Bites Dog (1992) are iconic films that were made very cleverly for very little money; they were feted by critics at film festivals, garnered buzz from audiences, and then the filmmakers either disappeared altogether, or it took a while before they got back on their feet again.
I wonder if that’s something that happens because the filmmaker has difficulty not necessarily trying to top themselves but find a project that is in line with the previous film and live up to audience expectations, or whether it’s just a strange business reality of enjoying a big success and then hitting a brick wall in trying to get a second project made?
MD: I read a lot about the guys who made Blair Witch, and I know for a fact that they got a huge amount because they were like a co-op group of filmmakers; there were about five who were direct profit participants in the film, and they were all close to 29-30 years old, and they got each $2-$5 million dollars, and what they said is that after working and striving for so long, they just sort of all got married, got families, bought houses and sort of ‘lived’ for a few years.
So their choice to not necessarily jump right in and making other movies is because they didn’t have to, mostly because of financial security. Now, within the last 2-3 years, both the two main directors came out with 2-3 films each. They just took their time, but in the case of many other films, a lot of times what happens is that unless the film is given a theatrical release and everyone knows it and it’s a big commodity, the filmmaker doesn’t make any money from the film, and unless he’s hired for something else, it might take him years to make another.
A friend of mine from Vancouver did this very low budget, and signed a deal with a US distributor, then it’s available in every video shop in the States because the distributor did a marketing campaign mimicking the Freddy vs Jason cover for my friend’s vampires versus zombies film. His film made a lot of money for the distributor, but my friend got only peanuts back from that deal, and since then he’s only made other self-financed films, so the success of that film only profited the distributor.
If you go back twenty years, a movie like mine would’ve probably have gotten a theatrical release, because there were less films being made on the indie side. Today there are so many that get made that even if they’re not really any good, distributors pick them up for nothing and just put a nice cover on it. For video shop owners, because they haven’t seen the films, they have no way of knowing if that film or that film is any good. All they can base their decision to carry a title is the cover.
It has also given more power to distributors who now have the pick of the litter, whereas just a few years before they had to shell out better money to acquire certain films. Now they can just say, ‘If you’re not willing to give it to us for nothing, we’ll just wait for the next guy who’s gonna make something, and is more naïve, and he’ll give it to us.’ So it’s become easier to make films, but harder to be a working filmmaker making a living at it.
MRH: Lastly, from the experience of making your film literally from scratch and using your own money, what did you learn the most about yourself, either as a filmmaker or as a person who’s able to handle so many different duties? And how you regard your next project?
MD: Well, I don’t think I learned anything new about myself; I think it only confirms stuff that was there from the past, which is that I’m made pretty solid; I can deal well with whatever life throws at me and still stand on my feet.
As for the future, hopefully what I’ve learned in the last two years and what I’ll keep learning in the next little while will be enough for me to keep making movies, and to actually make money with them. That would be really great, but I’m not alone in wanting that, so it’ll still be something to strive for.
KQEK.com would like to thank Maurice Devereaux for answering our questions in detail, and Leah Visser at Amberlight Productions for facilitating this interview.
For more information on End of the Line, please visit the official website HERE.
To see samples of Maurice Devereaux’ work on YouTube, click HERE.
All images remain the property of their copyright holders.
This article and interview © 2008 by Mark R. Hasan
An edited version of this interview is also available at Lucid Forge.
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Categories: Filmmaker Interview